Colourists at Bartholomew

In the early days of printing, maps were printed directly from an engraved copperplate. They were then hand-coloured, a job usually performed by women.

Lithographic printing, a technique which came to be widely used from the mid-19th century, was more advanced. It changed the way maps were produced and in the process created new roles, such as the colourist.

Bartholomew began to employ colourists, or 'the girls of the tint stones' as they were initially known, in the 1860s, when the firm adopted lithographic printing.

The basic stages of lithographic printing were:

Lithographic stones were durable and could print many more copies than printing directly from a copperplate.

Bartholomew’s maps could have up to eight different colours (and many more shades), but early lithographic printing machines could only print one colour at a time.

The work of a colourist

A colourist blocked out areas with a substance called 'opaque' (a sticky ink that had to be mixed with water). Using a fine sable brush and a magnifying glass, they made sure each colour was in the right place when the map was finished.

The work of a colourist was highly skilled. Each contour was separated by a very fine line and the colourists were expected to be able to block out areas of the map to the middle of these lines.

Skilled techniques

Colourists undertook an apprenticeship of around five years, perfecting the techniques necessary for work that was every bit as skilled as Bartholomew's draughtsmen or engravers. It might take three years of constant practice before a colourist was allowed to work on an actual job.

As technology changed so did the work of the colourists. In 1925, Bartholomew adopted photolithography and the colourists work moved to glass plates instead of lithographic stones.

From the 1960s, there was another change, this time to plastic film. At the same time, workbenches known as shining-up tables (tables with lights inside and glass tops) were introduced, making it easier for the colourists to see what they were doing when working on intricate maps.

Long-serving staff

Many of the colourists were long-serving members of Bartholomew's staff. Nan Tear accumulated 50 years' service, between 1913 and 1963, Ida Stewart worked from 1924-1970 and Margaret Colthart, who began working at Bartholomew in 1935, stayed for 41 years.

There were some interesting quirks when it came to working in this department. For a time, although the colourists could sing as they worked they were forbidden to talk. Also, an apprentice draughtsman, James Bain, who joined Bartholomew in 1888, remembered that:

'… two of the girls in the colourists department were very popular with the draughtsmen, but I can only remember that Rachel Bell was the name of one of them … I used to take love-notes between one of the draughtsmen and her — most irregular, but I think I rather liked the job!'


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